Thursday, October 20, 2011

Questionnaire for a Haredi Democrat

While in the Haredi world, it became clear to me that most of my acquaintances identified with social conservatism and Republicanism. Most of the Litvishe Haredi olam which I became familiar with was of a Republican bent. However, it also became clear to me that there were Litvishe Haredi Democrats and I always wondered what it must be like.

Rabbi Leonard Oberstein, Director of the Teachers Institute at Ner Israel Rabbinical College, often comments on Cross-Currents and it became clear to me that he was a Democrat and unashamed of his views. I wanted to know what that was like and sent him a questionnaire which he quite graciously filled out for me to put online. I hope you will find it as thought-provoking as I did. In the future, I hope to either send a questionnaire to or interview a Tea Party participant. I have a couple people in mind.

When and how did you come to identify as a Democrat?

My father, Meyer Oberstein, owned a grocery store in an all black area of Montgomery, Alabama for over 50 years. He treated his customers with respect and they reciprocated with loyalty. He told me that during the Depression, he arranged with the government that when they were giving out jobs for unemployed people, he would send them a certain number of black men whom he knew to be family men and they would get jobs . He helped them and they reciprocated by purchasing their groceries from him. He told me of a time when he went to see the Police Chief to demand that he allow a young black man to continue to operate a non liscensed club in the basement of my father's store. The police chief asked how my father could demand that this fellow be left alone and my father answered "because I know that he is your son." and the man listened to my father. Stories like this taught me that black people are to be treated fairly and helped. The fact that there never was a boycott of my father's store during the Civil Rights Era is the result of his good relations with the neighbors. As a child , I played with black children . Lyndon Johnson was a Southern President and he did more for the blacks than any other President since Lincoln. Southerners are not all bigots, but after Johnson the white supremicists all joined the Republican Party which today includes representatives of all that is retrogressive in our society. Some of my best friends are Republicans. I think my wife is too, as are some of my children, but not all of them.

Could you explain how you think the Democratic party is more conducive to Torah values than the Republican party?
There are elements of both Democratic and Republican principles that are in line with Torah values. Neither party has a monopoly on decency. However, the case can be made that the Torah's concern for the widow, the orphan, the stranger, it's emphasis on fair treatment of a worker,etc. are much more in line with Roosevelt-Truman-Johnson than the free market capitalism of the Republicans. Neither party is totally right on any of these issues, it is a judgement which is closer to the Torah and decent people can honestly disagree.

What are your thoughts on President Obama's performance so far? How about the Congress?
Obama was not my first choice. He came into office with too little experience and he did not know how to get what he wanted in today's toxic environment. Congress is captive to the need to raise huge amounts of money .The current campaign with hundreds of millions of anonymous money funding negative ads makes it very hard for true democracy to flourish. Our whole system is in danger. In today's climate, it is very hard to take a principled stand and do what is right. Look at poor Senator Bennet of Utah, a decent fiscal conservative who was tossed out by his own Republican Party because he sought compromise instead of total warfare. I can't blame Pelosi and Read, they are not able to do what Rayburn and Johnson could do back in the day. The whole system is pathetically dysfunctional.
Is your rav a Democrat? If not, some would say you should be mevatel daas to your rav. How would you respond?
My rav doesn't tell me how to vote. Rabbis should not mix religion and support for a particular candidate. I was once told by Congresman Jerald Nadler of New York that he represents in one district a large number of homosexuals and a large number of Chassidim and they both vote for him. he said that the Chassidim have "a transactional relationship" with government. They don't care what he does for the gays as long as they get the money they want for their projecs. Daas Torah does not mean that the rabbi tells you who to vote for. If you trust a certain wise person, who may be a rabbi and you have confidence that he understands the variables better than you do, then you can ask him whom he reccomends and you can chose whether or not to abide by his advise. More than that is inappropriate in a democracy.

A 1966 statement issued by Agudath Israel of America critiqued the Synagogue Council of America's political outlook: "...By joining the chorus of ill-informed advisers seeking to bind the hands of the President in the Viet Nam conflict, the Synagogue Council may unwittingly strengthen the intransigent posture of the adversaries of the United States, and thus harm the cause of peace." Do you agree or disagree with the Agudah on that issue?
I have the greatest respect for the Agudah and believe that any statement they issue is thorougly vetted by wise people, both rabbis and laymen. The Agudah doesn't violate the laws about political advocacy but it does take a stand and has every right to do so. I am a card carrying member of Agudah Israel of America.Every party needs a left wing, so I help them with diversity.
Being a rav at Ner Yisrael, I am certain you know many conservative rabbanim, kollel yungermen, and yeshiva bachurim. Some of your acquaintances have beliefs which many Democrats consider downright immoral or unpatriotic, such as the belief that Obama may well have been born in Kenya or the belief that the government is "out to get" the Jews. Do you find any such beliefs to be acceptable according to a Torah-true worldview?
Some of my best friends are conservatives politically and they have every right to their point of view. Neither party has a monopoly on truth,justice and the American way. Each party has extremists who go overboard, some people don't see the big picture and there may even be some who are narrow minded. In a democracy, stupid people have rights too.This works both ways.

Cross-Currents refers to itself as "a journal of thought and reflections, from an array of Orthodox Jewish writers...representing our individual perspectives." Hamodia calls itself "The Daily Newspaper of Torah Jewry." The Yated, which I am told is the most popular newspaper in Lakewood, calls itself "The Torah Newspaper for Our Times." Yet, none of these media outlets seem to be interested in ever promoting both sides, giving a haredi Democrat editorial space to promote his point of view. The haredi world seems to be telling its Democratic denizens that their views should not be considered mainstream or acceptable according to the daas hakahal. In a similar vein, online outreach attempts also seem to be pushing an explicitly conservative agenda.The Jewish Sidetick network is corun by Impulse Marketing CEO Jeff Goldstein, Orthodox web raconteur Eliyokum Cohen, and your daughter-in-law Bracha Oberstein. The stated mission is to help the reader "grow in...knowledge and pride of Judaism." But the vision promoted by that triumvirate is quite a conservative -- and some might say neoconservative -- one. Do you have any thoughts on that trend?
I have absolutely no quarrel with my daughter in law and the point of view that is espoused by many orthodox fora (plural of forum, if you took Latin,which I did). Many fine people honestly believe in limited government, lower taxes, less social legislation, etc.They are just as intelligent and as patriotic as those who believe that government is part of the solution. I have very good friends who have differrent views from mine and we can discuss areas of common ground without ill will and rancor.Let's all agree to disagree agreeably.


  1. Very interesting. I feel a little bad that he isn't free to say "Boy, do I think they're idiots" - at least politically. On the other hand, it's nice to defend people's right to their views.

  2. I loved the description "transactional relationship" with goverment; it defines their policy so well. It seemed to me that he never answered the first question. I consider myself a Republican conservative, mainly because on moral issues, it's hard to side with Democrats. But I think that most frum Jews live a double life -- they think they are conservative Republicans, but are very happy to have social welfare programs in place to keep people housed, fed, etc. I always wonder whether all the young frum people who listen to the talking-head conservatives ever paused to think about what life would be like if all such programs would be cut, as the talkshow hosts would do if they were in power.

  3. From my perspective up in Canada, a lot of it has to do with which party can promise more economic prosperity and which party is perceived as more pro-Israel.
    Prosperity matters because anti-Semitism raises its ugly head during economic downtowns. Israel matters as goes without saying.
    In both these areas, the Republicans have moved ahead of the Democrats which is probably why most frum Jews have switched to them.
    In addition, the Democrats have become captive to their looney fringe. When the party seems to be all about abortion-on-demand and homosexual marriage, is it any wonder most frum Jews look askance at it?
    Up here in Canada we have a similar interesting divide between non-frum Jews who support the Liberals because they were traditionally more multicultural and immigrant friendly and the frum Jews who figured out that the Liberal party non-frum Jews support also worked to exclude Jews from immigration during after right after WW2 and also routinely voted against Israel at the UN.

  4. S. - in response to your comment, I really dont think Rabbi Oberstein does think his republican friends are idiots. I know RO very well - took a class with him, have been in his house, buddies with his kids, etc. He's just one of those democrats that can never get past Alabama, and is thus a democrat for life. He knows he's in the minority in the frum world, and knows that the majority are not all a bunch of doofi. [plural of doofus, in Latin] He revels in being the gadfly token democrat at the kiddush. Hence, he is quite sincere in NOT calling conservatives idiots, he doesnt think that.

  5. DF, I meant people who think Obama was born in Kenya, or that Demorats are in essence unpatriotic, etc. The extremes which you find a lot of in the frum community. I say this as someone who in my day to day life has to either be willing to get into a fruitless debate and confrontation with nearly everyone in my community, or just smile, nod and think "Boy are you a moron" when they make some kind of comment about Obama being a Muslim or whatever the latest emotional conspiracy theory is.

    I bet Rabbi Oberstein does think they're morons, or at least being moronic. Straight up political disagreements? Most reasonable people understand that reasonable people see things different ways.

  6. He dodged literally every question!

  7. I thought his answers to the first three questions were fine. I agree with Daniel regarding the rest of his answers and particularly his very last one.

    But sometimes non-answers can be thought-provoking too :)

  8. Seems to me that the sentiment on this blog is that respectful disagreement is not allowed. Sounds a bit un-American to me.

    I am also a frum liberal. I will consider changing my political views when HaShem yisborach repeals "Ma Hu Rachum Af Ato Rachum."

  9. I'll give you the second and maybe the third question - though the second was so layered in "no one's right" that it was just kind of silly. But the first wasn't about being a Democrat or a Republican - it was about not being a racist!

  10. Question for Baruch: Do you think your rav should tell you for whom to vote? Do you feel that political recommendations are daas Torah?

  11. Do you think your rav should tell you for whom to vote?
    I don't believe in Torah, so no.

    Do you feel that political recommendations are daas Torah?
    From the perspective of Haredi Judaism, yes. Modern Orthodoxy, no. Pre-modern Jewish communities, I haven't studied it in depth, but I would hypothesize the answer to the question was generally no (political decisions were mainly made by kahal leadership) with some yeses (particularly from Zohar-influenced mystics).